The Rev. Canon John L. Peterson
In the name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit: The One God. Amen.
“When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, “Do not weep.”
Today in this post-Easter, Pentecost season, we travel to Nain, a small city in the fertile Jezreel Plain, just a few miles southeast of Nazareth. I actually had never been to Nain until last fall when the National Cathedral’s pilgrimage went to this Palestinian Israeli town which today hosts a Roman Catholic Franciscan Church that remembers the story of the Widow of Nain.
The trouble today is that all the Christians who used to live in Nain have moved from their village so this Franciscan Church is now cared for by a loving Muslim family that keeps the church spotless for the rare pilgrim who comes to the site of the biblical story that is our Gospel appointed for today.
In Biblical times, like today, Nain was not on any major roads running through the Jezreel Plain and therefore early Christian pilgrims did not make their way to Nain very often. But it is from this obscure village that Luke tells of Jesus healing the widow’s son.
As soon as Jesus’ story was told in the first century synagogues everyone would have remembered the Prophet Elijah when he, in Zarephath, in southern Lebanon today, revived a widow’s son and gave him life. The parallels are quite remarkable between the two stories—both Elijah and Jesus restored life to a young man. The parallels which you heard this morning when the lessons were read are not a coincidence.
- in each story the mother was a widow
- in each story the mother was met at the city gate
- in each story after life was restored, the young man was given to his mother
This is not a coincidence. Luke wants Jesus to be standing in the prophetic tradition of Luke’s heroes amongst the prophets, Elijah and Elisha. There is no mistake that the Jezeel Vally where Nain is located is really Elijah and Elisha’s territory.
What Luke is portraying here is the compassion of Jesus. The widow was the focus of Jesus’ compassion. Jesus’ attention is solely on this widow. The widow has lost her son. Think what that meant in first century Palestine. The woman has lost her husband. Her first “social net” has been taken away from her. There was no such thing as a husband’s inheritance being passed down to his wife; instead the property and everything would go to the husband’s brother, if the husband had no sons. Wives and daughters inherited no property, no money from their husbands or fathers.
Not only did this widow bury her husband, but she also was burying her son. When she buried her only son, all of the father’s inheritance of the son would go to his father’s brother. So not only was the widow grieving the death of her son, but she also knew that she had no “social net,” that she was going to be at the mercy of her husband’s brother. And Jesus had compassion for her.
Last Sunday was Trinity Sunday, a day when the Church thinks about the attributes of the Trinity. It is a day when preachers have to come up with something to say about the unexplainable nature of God. To be honest with you, I am always happy when it is someone else who has to preach on Trinity Sunday. However, when I read the story of the widow of Nain, I know that the only thing that makes sense of that story—and the only thing that makes sense of our life—is the Trinity.
For the Christian, the unique gift God has given to us is Jesus, Jesus is and represents the perfect manifestation of God. In Jesus we have a unique perspective into the nature of God. Now I am not saying that we know the nature of God, for as Canon Eugene Sutton reminded us last Sunday, “The scandal of Christianity was not that Jesus was a holy man, but that his early followers came to understand that he was God incarnate…God had taken on corruptible flesh. The early Christian movement…comprehended…that God was doing a new thing in the world: redeeming humanity by becoming one with us!”
In Jesus we have a glimpse into the nature of God.
In today’s story from Nain, Jesus shows compassion on the widow. Certainly one of the attributes that Jesus shows us is the compassion of God.
Three weeks ago I was back in Jerusalem, this time with the clergy and seminarians from Hong Kong. Just before leaving Washington I learned about the death of a spouse of a staff person here at the National Cathedral. Her name was Lynne. Lynne was young. She had died after a long battle with cancer. Her death had impacted all of us and therefore when I arrived in Jerusalem one of the first things I did was to go to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to prepare a burial shroud for Lynne on the stone of anointing, the stone that the Church remembers in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, as the place where Jesus’ body was anointed and prepared for burial.
As a friend from Hong Kong and I knelt at the stone of anointing preparing Lynne’s shroud, the thought that came to my mind was that Jesus too was weeping. That Lynne’s life had been snuffed away from her family and friends way too early. Jesus was weeping. God was weeping for Lynne’s family. Jesus had compassion on the widow from Nain. Jesus has compassion on all those who suffer today as well. Jesus weeps. God weeps.
The compassion of Jesus was certainly seen in Bethany when Jesus went to Bethany to be with his friends, Mary, Martha and Lazarus. Lazarus had died four days earlier and, as is Jewish burial custom, Lazarus had been in the tomb for four days. You will recall in the Gospel of John when Jesus goes to Lazarus’ tomb and Jesus asks to have the rolling stone removed, Martha, Lazarus’ brother, said to Jesus. “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.”
Jesus loved Lazarus and Jesus wept at the death of his friend. The really human emotion of tears is a sign of God’s compassion for God’s creation. There is absolutely no question in my mind that God weeps today over God’s creation. There is no question in my mind that Jesus shows his compassion to all those who suffer, to those who are oppressed, to those who are poor, to those who mourn.
Jesus weeps today for those who live under the oppression of a wall in Palestine. For those who are separated from their fields so they no longer can earn a living. For those children who no longer can go to school because the wall separates the Roman Catholic school that was run by Rosary Sisters from the Sisters’ convent that is located across the street from the school. But today the wall runs down the middle of the street, separating the Sisters’ convent from their school.
Jesus weeps today for those who are losing their homes and islands in the South Pacific because the sea level of the oceans is rising because of global warming. Not only is the entire habitat of Antarctica being impacted, but the islands like Fiji hundreds of miles to the north are in danger because of global warming.
Jesus weeps today for the people of Iraq and a war that seems to have no end. Jesus holds in his compassionate arms all those who suffer daily because of the loss of life, be they American or British military, be they Iraqi civilians or military, or be they insurgents. Jesus weeps. Jesus puts his compassionate arms around the Iraqi mother who wails in mourning for her son and daughter who just lost their lives going to university.
Jesus weeps today for the worker who is exploited because a living wage is not paid be it here in this country or in a third world country in Africa or Asia. Jesus weeps when the worth of human labor is not recognized by a salary that will give integrity to the work as well as to the worker. Jesus recognizes each person laboring as God’s own creation and God will show compassion to all those who have lost their human dignity by the indignity of those exploiting them.
Today this Cathedral has committed itself to the Millennium Development Goals. Like in Bethany when Jesus weeps for his friend Lazarus, I believe God weeps where there is injustice and oppression—when God’s creation has been violated.
But Jesus will smile…
Jesus will smile when the oppression of extreme poverty and hunger has been eradicated.
Jesus will smile when universal primary education is achieved.
Jesus will smile when gender equality and women are empowered.
Jesus will smile when child mortality is reduced.
Jesus will smile when maternal health is improved.
Jesus will smile when HIV and AIDS, malaria and other diseases are combated.
Jesus will smile when environmental sustainability is ensured.
Jesus goes to the obscure village of Nain, not far from his hometown, and performs the miracle of raising the widow’s son from the dead. Jesus had compassion on that widow, knowing all of the social consequences that she would have to face with the death of her son.
Jesus does no less for us today. Jesus weeps when Lynne dies. Jesus weeps when a wall separates a family. Jesus weeps when a person does not earn a livable wage. Jesus weeps when we waste and misuse the natural resources and when we pollute our environment…even the smokestacks that pollute our city one block away from the Capitol.
But we as Christians also know what makes Jesus smile. We know what makes God smile. In the name of generous spirited Christianity, let us make that smile our goal.
In the name of God. Amen.